Rowing toward Rio: Crew trains for Paralympics

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BRIGHTON, Mass. (AP) — The sleek sliver of a boat that Jackie Smith, Dani Hansen, Dorian Weber and Zachary Burns are rowing on the Charles River twice a day this summer looks like any of the dozens of other crew shells navigating the river's narrow twists and bends and steering through the floating debris, flocks of geese and flotilla of kayaks, canoes and other rowers.

Except that Smith is blind, Hansen's left arm is partially paralyzed, and Weber and Burns have club feet and underdeveloped leg muscles.

One thing more sets the two women and two men apart from other crews training on the Charles these days: They're headed to Rio de Janeiro next week to represent the United States in the Paralympic Games that follow the Olympics. In their 15th year, the Paralympics allow athletes from around the world with disabilities to compete. This year's games take place Sept. 7 to 18.

In a launch alongside the crew every day since the four converged at a Brighton boathouse from their homes around the country July 1 to start two months of training is their coach, Ellen Minzner, a Lawrence native and Haverhill resident who has coached the Paralympic crew for USRowing for four years and is herself a two-time world rowing champion.

Minzner grew up on Dunstable Street in South Lawrence, attended St. Mary High School on Haverhill Street— now Notre Dame Academy —and then Villanova University in Philadelphia, where she was captain of the women's crew her junior year. In the 30 years that followed her graduation, Minzner made the sport her mission, a way to engage the poor, underachieving students, military veterans, the obese and, now, the disabled.

After coaching stints at several universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, Minzner returned to the Lawrence area to coach the women's crew at Community Rowing, a nonprofit with a boathouse the size of an airplane hangar on the Charles in Brighton. The organization has a three-word mission statement: "Rowing for All."

Today, Minzner is director of outreach for Community Rowing, where besides coaching the Paralympic team, she oversees free rowing programs that serve military veterans, obese children from Children's Hospital, and 3,500 middle- and high-school students. She also served as executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Boating program on the Merrimack River, where she created and coached a rowing program for underserved children that today provides oars, shells and coaching to 100 adolescents.

But coaching the disabled to compete at the Olympic level is a different challenge. Beyond the difficulty of synchronizing the strokes of four athletes with a range of disabilities in a single boat, the requirement that four-person Paralympic crews include two men and two women adds to the uneven distribution of power in the boat.

"It's not like you have everyone in a boat and they're perfectly fit and they just get in the boat and row," said Weber, a 34-year-old Floridian rowing in his second Paralympics. "You have two very different groups of people that produce two very different amounts of power. And then when you combine that with people who have slight disabilities, you're going to have a lot of issues. (Minzner) is very good with organizing that and making sure we're getting as much torque as we can from the parts of the engine."

Weber's club feet limit the flexibility and strength of his lower body and prevent him from placing his feet squarely on the plate where rowers strap their shoes, reducing the power his legs can provide when he pushes off the plate and slides backward through his strokes. He likened the disability to lifting weights while standing on tip-toes rather than flat on the ground.

To compensate for disabilities like that, Paralympic rules allow the oar locks, seats and other rigging on shells to be adjusted and customized in ways not allowed for what disabled rowers refer to as "standard" crews, who have no disabilities. Adaptive rowing joined the Paralympics in 2008, helping spark the sport's steady growth. Today, more than 60 USRowing member organizations offer it. For better or worse, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also are contributing to the growth.

"The military is a huge pipeline for us," said Tom Darling, the director of the para-rowing program for USRowing, describing what the sport is offering to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with lower-body injuries that might otherwise end their athletics. He recalled two Marines whose 3-mile runs together ended when they lost legs in roadside bombs four years ago. They're still working out, Darling said, but in a crew shell.

Darling said Minzner's decades of dedication to rowing and her broad view of what all sports can accomplish socially made her his choice to take over USRowing's Paralympic program in 2012. For the master's degree she earned from Tufts University two years earlier, Minzner's thesis explored the role of youth sports on community development. She concluded that the United States lags most other countries in harnessing sports to bring change.

"We know that sports has a tremendous power for good, especially for the young in areas that are under-served," Minzner said. "The rest of the world uses youth sports to advance development aims— disease eradication, employment and education, economic development."

She began coaching the Paralympic team with her own disability: limited knowledge about what disabled crews need. She called a colleague for advice.

"I said, 'How do I fix it if the men are finishing (strokes) before the women?' "Minzner said about her call to Charley Butt, a coach of Harvard University's men's crew for 30 years. "He said, 'Tighten this. Shorten that. See if it works.' Traditional rowing says everyone in a boat has to have the same measurements. The rigging should be the same throughout the boat. With a mixed boat, for people with disabilities, that's thrown out the window." Minzner quickly mastered the art and science of all that. Her first Paralympic crew placed fourth at the World Championships in Chungju, South Korea, in 2013. Her second crew won the silver medal at the World Championships in Amsterdam in 2014. Her third won the silver at Aiguebelette, France, last year.

"We should be pretty quick," is all she'll say about the chances for this year's U.S. crew in Rio next month.

"Hands level, steady now!" Minzner shouts into her megaphone as she steers her launch up the Charles beside the U.S. Paralympic Four, sometimes speaking in a jargon special to the sport.

"As exact as possible. Every single stroke. No variation. We know the finish marks. We know the catch marks. Hey that was pretty nice! You feel how easy it is? Not bad. Don't get crazy with the handle height. Hold the seat steady."

On this day, it's something like workout number 30 in a regimen that Smith, Hansen, Weber and Burns began when they arrived in Brighton from their homes and schools in New York, California, Florida and Michigan weeks ago, along with their coxswain, Jennifer Sichel of New Jersey, who is not disabled. Since then, Minzner and her crew have been shoving off from the dock at the Harry Peterson boathouse in Brighton and into the crowded swirl of other crews twice a day, six days a week for practices— drills, sprints, starts, balancing exercises, feathering blades and holding them square —that begin at 7 a.m. and match what the other crews practicing on the Charles are doing. Weber— the heaviest of the four at about 160 pounds and, at 34, the oldest —is the stroke oar, setting the pace from his seat in the stern. Burns is behind him, followed by Hanson and Smith.

Weber, a West Palm Beach, Florida, resident taking an unpaid leave from his job as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, is the most accomplished rower in his boat. Even with his disability, he twice made the U.S. National Team's standard crew, including in 2013, when the team's lightweight eight placed third in the world championships. He said his proudest moment in rowing came in a singles race in Australia in 2010, when he beat Duncan Free, who was a gold medalist at the Summer Olympics in Beijing 18 months earlier.

When this practice ends, Minzner lingers on the dock with Burns, a sophomore engineering major at the University of Michigan and the youngest on the Paralympic crew, at 19. He asks for another tweak to the angle of his oarlock. It's a process of adjusting, customizing and tinkering that has been going on for all four rowers since they arrived in Brighton.

"At this point, we're talking about degrees," Minzner said. "One degree here, a centimeter there. ... We've had a lot of individual changes over the last few weeks. It's time to start moving as one."

Rowing's adaptability accounts for some of the sport's growing attraction for people with disabilities, who often feel left behind by the rigid rules and demands of other sports. The sport recognizes three levels of disabilities. The athletes on Minzner's Paralympic team have at least some use of their legs, trunk and arms, the highest level of ability. The most disabled have little use of their bodies below their arms and shoulders. The levels compete separately.

"The good thing about rowing is that it doesn't require a ball," said Smith, 23, a New Yorker and a graduate student at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who was born with ocular albinism, a genetic defect that made her legally blind. "I come from this very athletic family. Sports are everything. Growing up, I played all these sports. I was pretty good at them. I was pretty fast. But I had a problem when it came to depth perception. When I got to high school, they offered rowing. It didn't involve a ball. That's where I picked up rowing."

She said Minzner's coaching is succeeding for her where other coaches fell short.

"She knows what it's like to work with adaptive athletes and she knows how to coach them," Smith said. "Growing up, I was the first person my coaches had with a disability. (Minzner's coaching) was a big difference for me and it's helped my rowing over the last four years."

Smith's greatest challenge is matching the cadence— called a stroke rate and measured in strokes per minute —of the three other oars. The little vision she has will be blacked out entirely during the Paralympics, when blackout goggles will be placed over the glasses of all partially blind athletes.

"The synchronization that's required, the timing, the precision, the rhythm, it's all very difficult for anyone even with full sight at this level," Minzner said. "So to be able to have the same expectations as everyone else in the crew, yet have that visual impairment, it's a huge challenge."

"Let's walk through some half slides— low med high," Minzner directed her crew halfway into the recent practice, setting up a drill that requires rowers to slide their seats in their tracks just half way. "The low can be whatever stoke rating we have here. Just up two or three beats. I'm not looking for a stroke rate of 50 or anything."

This workout lasts about 90 minutes. Like the others, it's followed by a half-hour spinning on stationary bikes in a gym at the boathouse, then one-on-one sessions with a physical therapist.

When it ends, the discussion turns to a common topic among disabled athletes: how their sport can be elevated in its status and prestige. Minzner said the perspective she brings to adaptive crew from a lifetime as a full-bodied athlete has given her insight into the issue. Among other things, she says Paralympic crews should race the same 2,000-meter course that Olympic crews race. She has an idea about how to make that happen.

"Coming from the outside, I can question some of the rules and make sure they're athlete-centered," she said. "Why are we rowing just 1,000 meters? We have to row fast enough and hard enough to show we don't need a shorter race course."


Information from: The Eagle-Tribune,

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